I’ve been waiting impatiently for nearly a year for “Sleep Dealer” to come out on DVD. I first saw this excellent Mexican-American Science Fiction movie at the 2008 Virginia Film Festival last November; it was finally released on DVD last month.
Set perhaps a generation, or so, into the future, “Sleep Dealer” paints a dystopian view of the Third World where corporations control resources, Mexican labor is exploited, wars are fought remotely, TV shows broadcast the fight against terrorists as audiences cheer wanton destruction, and technology dehumanizes us all. Hmmm… Doesn’t really sound all that futuristic, does it?
The movie begins in the remote Mexican province of Oaxaca where Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) helps his father run their poor farm. The father pines for the old days before an American corporation dammed up the river and now charges the peasants exorbitant prices for water. Memo, however, is not interested in the land; he yearns for the big city and, in his spare time, tries hacking into the global telecommunications network to listen in on the private conversations of people he’d rather be.
One day he accidentally taps into the communications of the US military who believe there are terrorists in Oaxaca. Memo’s connection is intercepted and his home is mistaken for a terrorist headquarters. The military sends a remote drone, flown by rookie pilot Rudy (Jacob Vargas), who never physically leaves his base in San Diego.
The consequences are tragic. As a result, Memo leaves Oaxaca to try to find work in Tijuana. Rudy, safe in the US, slowly begins to question the morality of his job, despite his parents’ assurances that he’s doing the right thing by “killing bad guys.”
In Tijuana, a technology referred to as “nodes” (electrical implants in the human body) allows Mexican workers to perform menial tasks for Americans, remotely controlling robots. It’s the new American Dream: Americans can get cheap Mexican labor without actually having the Mexicans in America.
Once Memo gets the nodes implanted in his body, he can work at a factory-like complex nicknamed a “sleep dealer” because overwork can lead to exhaustion. Here he gets hooked up to a machine and, by remotely controlling a robot 1000 miles away, helps to build a skyscraper in the US.
Memo meets and befriends Luz (Leonor Varela) who begins an affair with him. But Luz has ulterior motives. Using similar “node” technology, Luz is able to extract her memories and sell them to the highest bidder; a mysterious stranger is paying her for memories of Memo.
I found the movie quite engaging. Using the metaphor of the future, it deals with many social, political, and economic issues that are so important to our society today. These are moral issues that affect the Third World more than they do the First World, where people are rich and comfortable inside the US and would rather not think about how the policies that keep them rich affect the billions of poor people throughout the world.
First-time director Alex Rivera has also created three very interesting characters and a plot that keeps moving, especially toward the climatic end. I also love his eye for humorous detail, such as a sign in a bar that advertises “Live Node Girls,” or elderly folks dancing to hip-hop which is referred to as “old time music.”
A few superficial user-critics bemoan the fact that the low-budget special effects are not as slick and polished as some of the more recent Hollywood blockbusters. But I think most audience members don’t really care—after all, we didn’t mind this quality of effects in the late 1990s. The compelling story, acting, and socio-political themes are far more important.
It’s a shame that this movie never got a wide theatrical release in the US, but now that it’s out on DVD everyone can check it out and learn that the future isn’t very far off. In fact, it may already be here.